Writing Mr. Wong

Susan Crean’s decision to write about her family servant and dear friend Mr. Wong takes her on a journey that reveals just as much about the ever-shifting nature of multiculturalism and identity in Canada as it does about Wong’s life

It’s a brilliant Friday morning in August, 2011 just past nine o’clock, and the sidewalk along Spadina Avenue in downtown Toronto is already thick with people. A yellow school bus pulls up to the curb letting off a stream of passengers who make for the Wongs’ Association building nearby. Like me, they are headed for the Ancestors’ Hall on the top floor where the official opening of the national convention of Wongs is taking place — if convention is the right word for something that’s more family reunion than business meeting.  The gathering is a tri-annual event bringing together reps from Wongs’ associations across the country and the agenda includes things like a trip to Niagara Falls, a photo-op in front of Queen’s Park, and a banquet for 1,200 on Saturday. Unquestionably this is the highlight of the weekend, a gigantic and very public event featuring video presentations, live performance (music and dance), and live politicians—Premier McGuinty, MP John McCallum and Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, for starters.

If the main function of the convention is social, clearly there’s a political edge to it and that goes for the ceremony in the Ancestors’ Hall which, unlike the banquet, unfolds entirely in Cantonese and seems geared to Old Times and an old guard rather than the present. Founded in Toronto in 1912, Wong Kung Har Wun Sun is one of dozens of benevolent societies set up to help early Chinese immigrants survive the hardships of living on the margins of an intensely racist society. They provided community, support (job information, shelter), protection and even credit when none was available from the banks.  Much has changed in Canadian Chinatowns in a century, and younger Canadians often know little about them, tending to regard them as ‘old men’s clubs’. In a moving memoir both about his father and his recent apprenticeship at Modernize Tailors in Vancouver, writer J.J. Lee describes in The Measure of A Man  going to a banquet at the Lee’s Benevolent Association of Montreal. “Its members comprised Lees from the same village as my father. Everyone acted as if they were my uncles, but I didn’t know how I was related to them, if at all, and I still don’t. Nor do I have any clue to whom they were benevolent.”

With their aging memberships and declining purpose, it’s no secret the associations need reinvention. Not everyone would see opportunity in the situation, but Greg K.W. Wong does and Greg’s been a key convention organizer. His tactic has been to recruit youth and let them loose. “Allow people to run with their ideas and the result is spectacular, so long as they work together,” he asserts. The premise of the old associations holds true: there is strength in numbers. And, he quickly adds, ingenuity. Crazy ideas sometimes get traction.

Although I am not young, not a Wong and not even Chinese, I’m one of Greg’s recruits, somehow ending up working on the committee editing the convention’s glossy, bilingual magazine. Somehow implies random happenstance, though, which was not how it was. I was there on purpose because I have a close connection to someone who was a Wong. Wong Dong Wong came to Canada in 1911 when he was sixteen, lived his entire life here, and never returned to his homeland in China. He was one of the ill-fated generation of Chinese men stranded by the exclusion laws that Canada enforced between 1923 and 1947, which condemned them to lives without family and children. Mr. Wong met my Irish grandfather in Toronto in the mid 1920s, and in 1928 went to work for him as cook-housekeeper when the family moved into a new house in Forest Hill. My father and uncle were still teenagers then; Mr. Wong was thirty-three. He remained in the job until he retired to live in Chinatown in 1965 by which time he was seventy, I was twenty and had known and loved him all my life. My earliest memories involve him, and a major part of my childhood was spent in his kitchen and garden, or on outings like the Saturday afternoon he took me to see a movie for the first time. I was seven and the movie was Bonnie Prince Charlie starring David Niven.  I remember the amazement and horror—first at immense size of the screen images, and then the sight of horses being killed in battle along with people. Wong leans over to whisper, “No worry, Sunsii, the horses are acting too.”

I started pestering Wong about going to China when I was about three or four, spurred on by stories of being able to dig your way there. In the sixties as he neared retirement, he still talked of his returning to Canton (Guangdong), but his health was poor by then and the Cultural Revolution had begun.  When he died in 1970 I’d begun writing, yet the idea of writing about him sat unformed for decades in the back of my mind. Right next to the assumption that someday I’d find his village and make the journey back to find his roots in China.  I knew both propositions would come up implausible in the light of day. I also knew it would not be OK for the Boss’s granddaughter to try writing a memoir of the loyal family servant—which is how it would be seen and how I’d have viewed it myself from the outside. On the one hand, to confine myself to writing only what I knew of Wong from my life with him would be to write my own story and utterly sentimentalize his. For his included his Chinese heritage and perspective, as well as his experience of Canada—Canada the state, and Canada the place—and the world hidden behind the phrase “going down to Chinatown” which happened every Sunday. How would I know enough to write about Mr. Wong and who he was with any confidence? How different would my effort be from Duncan Campbell Scott using the stories of Indigenous peoples in his poetry while he governed their lives as the Deputy Superintendent General of Indian Affairs?  After all, I benefited from the racial injustice that landed Mr. Wong in the heart of my family.

Without knowing the answer to this, I set out on my search three years ago, figuring that I’d know how to write Mr. Wong—and if I could—after the research was done. The dilemma, I thought, would be finding people who would speak to me.

Very probably Mr. Wong was a member of the Wong Kung Har Wun Sun Association. Over the five decades he lived in Toronto he’d have socialized there, heard the latest talk of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the Guomindang and the Communists, read the magazines with news of his home Taishan (Toisan), played mah-jong, and raised money for the Cantonese Opera. As I made my rounds speaking to people, I was repeatedly told I’d never get near the old associations; if I wanted to find anyone in Chinatown with memories of Mr. Wong I should get something in Sing Tao, the Chinese daily which publishes editions in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Hong Kong. Enter Joanna Qiao, a Chinese-speaking journalist with special knowledge of Chinese-Canadian history who became my research assistant and translator, who orchestrated a front page weekend feature published a few days before I set out for Mr. Wong’s village in Taishan (Toishan). This was the breakthrough that elicited messages, offers of help and tips from Taishanese in Canada, Australia and Hong Kong. Even the Bureau of Overseas Chinese Affairs in Taishan City emailed to ask when I’d be arriving.

Around that time I also met Chuck C.C. Wong, a retired university librarian at a panel on Chinese-Canadian history. Before long I was collaborating with him on his bibliographic projects while he was giving me tips on primary source material.  One day in the winter of 2011, Chuck announced he’d taken on the task of pulling together the magazine for the up-coming Wongs’ national convention and could use some help. Not long afterwards he invited me to meet another Chuck Wong, this being Chuck K. Wong, a long-time and very committed Association director who, after dim sum, took us back to the offices on Spadina.  Chuck K. showed me around and talked with enthusiasm about the Association’s history, pointing out the photo of his great uncle, Wong Nun Yao, third chairman of the Association. “He worked every Sunday managing its social and financial affairs,” he writes in the Convention magazine. “I never heard him complain about the burden, and in that he was a role model to all of us.”  A few days later, as Chuck C.C. and I were going over material at the library, he turned to me. “You know, you should write something about your first visit to the Wongs’ Association. For the Convention magazine.”

This chain of events could be described as a nifty way in the Association’s back door— except it was actually through the front door and by invitation. But it typifies the openness I encountered in the Chinese community, and the willingness of many (writers, academics, and old-timers) to help me negotiate the barriers of language and culture.  Mr. Wong’s story is familiar in this milieu, of course, but the fact that I come with it scarcely raised an eyebrow. People simply embraced it. Some even searched me out after reading about my search—as did Howe Chan who called me up from B.C. when he read the Sing Tao piece to tell me he’d grown up in a village very close Mr. Wong’s. Howe has become a friend and adviser, and, as we poured over the Wong family tree, it almost seemed logical that he’d find a connection. And he did, discovering his mother was a cousin of Mr. Wong’s five times removed.

Over many conversations Howe told me his own family story, beginning with his arrival in Moncton in 1949 to meet a father he didn’t know. From him I learned how Canadian laws had had the capacity to turn family into strangers. Occasionally, the reverse happened when affection created family among strangers.

If I feel I can now write about Mr. Wong it has to do with the fact that Canada has changed. Since Mr. Wong’s time the idea of pluralism has become an ideal in the minds of many Canadians, perhaps a side-effect of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, the policy, may have begun as a clever way of subsuming Quebec’s distinct status in Pierre Trudeau’s mantra of “one country, two languages and many cultures” but over 40 years later diversity has become part of our national identity, and exists on visceral as well as official levels.  Moreover, scores of people have become engaged in serious cross-cultural inter-connection, something implied by intermarriage and achieved in many places by simply going to school.

I figure this is what poet-activist Robert Priest is talking about when he mentions our “melding around the edges”. Diversity, he claims, has seeped into the culture and is changing our understanding of ourselves.  In “Meeting Place”, a poem about Toronto, he writes:

i come home to find i’ve gone a bit buddhist

another day i’m slightly marxist

i dare say there are even days when i may get a little gay

we’re all so close

we can’t help tripping over one another

Over coffee at our local cafe, the Tango Palace, we agree that this melding business could be one of multiculturalism’s major achievements. Priest sees a perspective emerging that does not present Canada “as this offshoot of a civilization that happened in Europe centuries ago.” Speaking of the Scots/Irish and English immigrants to Canada like the two of us, he notes, “We came over as transplanted Europeans. We we coming from a place with a rich history and were going to a place with very little history.”  In that situation the Indigenous inhabitants were the people with the knowledge and skills, and inevitably some Native ways were adopted by mainstream Canadian culture. This is the point John Ralston Saul makes in his groundbreaking book, A Fair Country. Canadian civilization, Saul argues, was largely built on Aboriginal concepts of fairness, egalitarianism and negotiation and is not the creature of Western tradition with its hierarchical culture, and monolithic concepts of nationhood. Moreover, newcomers to Canada were often minorities in the countries they left behind, so they brought an experience that predisposed them to try accommodation with their neighbours rather than attempted domination.

In imperial terms, Canada was downwardly mobile from the outset. It was established as a triangulated entity not a monolith, the result of the continuous interaction between French, English and Indigenous peoples—and is a work-in-progress to this day.   Multiculturalism no doubt tapped into this sensibility. But it left us with the image of the Canadian mosaic which has never really fit reality. Ever since it was invented, Canadians have been building bridges between those islands of colour set in concrete which cannot deal with the fluidity, the hybridity and kinetic energy of the culture we have been evolving. Perhaps the metaphor we need is river.

In the end, it was this basic commitment of Canadians to make pluralism work that made it easy for many communities—especially the Chinese Canadian community which is one of the oldest—to take multiculturalism at its word, and embrace the notion of participating in the defining of Canada and Canadianess. An illustration, should you want one, was right there, front and centre, at the Wongs’ Banquet. This was the grand moment when the new and official family coat-of-arms was proclaimed by Forrest Pass of the Canadian Heraldic Authority (the office in Rideau Hall which grants such honours on behalf of the Queen).  Being official means conforming to the ancient rules of British heraldry, not easy an easy task according to Chuck C.C. Wong, who was on the design team along with Greg Wong and the Authority’s expert Forrest Pass.  First, to be Chinese it had to have a phoenix and a dragon. “Once that was accepted,” Chuck explains, “the big question was what would we have for the two flanking animals This kept me awake nights until I came up with the obvious: a polar bear and a panda.”

The media loved the two bears, and so did many Wongs.  Toronto City Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who spoke at the banquet, gave the medal emblazoned with it to her father. “He took some pride in it, and liked the choice of animals,” she says. For Wong-Tam the evening was transformative. “I’d had absolutely no contact with the Wongs’ Association until the night of the banquet. I’d never understood before the gut connection people experience at family gatherings, where everyone is welcome simply because of a shared namesake.”

But it was Susan Eng, the vice-president of advocacy at CARP who made the quip about reverse appropriation. She was having fun, she says later, “as it is usually those in an established community appropriating from newcomers.” She was also making a distinction. In her view, the use of other people’s culture as decoration usually trivializes that culture and dismisses that peoples’ equality. But, Eng maintains,  the appropriation going on at the Wongs’ Banquet was a statement of belonging:  “There is a bit of reverse cultural appropriation going on. But it allows the Wongs to have a bit of fun while creating a symbol that incorporates both heritages; something they can call their own but also something that roots their identity in Canada.” Greg Wong echoes the point. “The crest was putting us on equal footing. It was not opening doors. It was re-inventing something.” And it was also one crazy idea that caught on.

In the beginning I had no expectation I’d ever find Mr. Wong’s village. In China, I not only found it, I found descendants of the uncle who originally brought Wong to Vancouver to work in the restaurant business. The uncle, Wong Wanshen returned to China in the 1930s after the death of his only son, and so it was his adopted grandson, Wong Wenxi, whom I met in Wing Ning in 2010.  I am still mulling over the improbability of turning up in a corner of the People’s Republic looking for the story of a orphan boy who left ninety-nine years ago and never returned—and finding it.  And the luck of then finding a relative to coach me on Taishanese pronunciation and tell me about New Year’s at Shui Doi (Wing Ning) when the Opera would come and perform.

Ultimately the search for Mr. Wong has become part of his story. Partly, it inspired attention because the work of Chinese domestic servants is an all-but-lost history. But it was also because Mr. Wong is an example of those special individuals who are able to cross cultures and make alliances across the power lines of race and class, supposedly rigid boundaries that are never completely impermeable. The Canada he helped create ended up helping me find him.